Phoenix’s Sophisticated Primitive People
Arizona and Phoenix are relatively young as entities. Any passerby would probably ask, why would anyone settle in the desert? That’s a good question, but not one for any settlers of the last 100 years. Instead we need to look to a people who settled in the Valley of the Sun hundreds of years before – the Hohokam.
As is the case with so many places, water was the key to their settlement. Not that there was a lot in this Sonoran Desert valley, but the Salt River does run through it with a steady supply of water. These people, who so often people consider primitive and unsophisticated, used the river to their advantage by digging more than 100 miles of irrigation canals.
The head of this massive canal system that may have provided water for up to 50,000 people throughout the valley is located just minutes from my apartment on the outskirts of the Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. Owned and maintained by the City of Phoenix Parks Department, Pueblo Grande Museum is the archaeological site of the biggest known Hohokam complex and the heart of their once thriving Phoenix civilization.
A couple of weeks ago, a friend and I spent a couple of hours there and were very impressed with the sophistication of these primitive people.
A visit to this site should begin with the short video that describes the place and its former inhabitants including what may have happened to them. From the small theater you can get to the actual archaeology by walking through a small gallery explaining how archaeologists work and out the doors. Follow the trail, and signs will tell you the story.
The canal system had large channels – up to fifty feet wide in some cases – that took water all across the valley to farmlands and other settlements. This was the first sign that these people were extremely sophisticated. They used the land to move the water to where they needed and wanted it. So well-constructed are these canals that modern settlers have used them to populate the valley and the current utilities management company, Salt River Project (SRP), uses some of the original canals in its current system.
The next sign, besides their elaborate building that’s pretty similar to other ancient southwestern cultures, was the positioning of one particular room to allow the sun to hit it at just the right time. Archaeologists posit that this room was used for ceremonies of some kind since the light lined up on the solstices. To me it isn’t just that that is amazing, but that they lined it up with another building more than a mile away that had a window the light passed through that was also lined up with the Hole in the Rock in Papago Park a few miles away.
That kind of engineering and surveying is pretty amazing for a culture people consider primitive.
The site includes ruins of the main platform mound, canals and a ball court. They also have a few examples of other styles of dwelling the Hohokam people built in the area, which you can go inside. One of them reminded us of Tatooine. They also have a garden showing the crops the people grew.
The site looks like an active research dig is still taking place in parts. Being a Saturday, there were not archaeologists for us to observe.
I was a bit confused when it came to the ball court. I am curious how they know it was a ball court and not a reservoir or cistern. Unlike the ancient Mayan ball courts that actually look like they were sporting venues. I’m sure there is some evidence, but they never really said at Pueblo Grande how they know the dish-shaped court was used for ball games.
After your walk around the actual site, go back inside to visit the main gallery with artifacts including baskets, pottery and jewelry. This gallery puts everything together and tells the Hohokam story very well. Some of the artifacts are extremely beautiful and came from trade with cultures in Central America and California.
I hope to visit some of the other nearby Hohokam ruins soon including Mesa Grande Cultural Park and Casa Grande National Monument. There are also some petroglyph sites in the area.
Hope you’re enjoying the most wonderful time of the year. Until next time, adventure is out there! So, go have one.